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The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy is 
available from Left Bank Books, 

Violence Sells... But Who's Buying? 

by Gabriel Kuhn 

Misrepresentations, hut Substantial Differences as Well 

by Peter Gelderloos 

a discussion of 

The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy 

Violence Sells... But Who's Buying? 

This essay is a review of The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to 
Occupy by Peter Gelderloos (Seattle: Left Bank Books, 2013 ) 
Originally posted at 

When, some months ago, I read on that Peter 
Gelderloos was among someone's "favourite activist writers", I wasn't 
surprised. Gelderloos writes from the perspective of an active partici- 
pant in numerous social struggles, manages to do this without any bothersome 
academic jargon, lays out his arguments well, and furthers debate about subjects 
central to revolutionary movements. All of this also applies to his latest publica- 
tion, The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy, published by 
Seattle's Left Bank Books. 

If the arguments in The Failure of Nonviolence - and, in fact, the title - 
remind readers of Gelderloos's popular 2005 book How Nonviolence Protects the 
State [1], this is no surprise either. As Gelderloos himself states in the "Comments 
on How Nonviolence Protects the State", added as an appendix to The Failure of 
Nonviolence, the latter was originally conceived as an updated version of the 
former, until the author decided "it would be better to write a new book rather 
than try to revise the earlier one" (p. 284). 

The key arguments of both books are the same: "violence" is a terribly 
vague term that only confuses discussion about tactics and strategy; "proponents 
of nonviolence" - as Gelderloos likes to call them - write social movement history 
in ways that fit their own ideological assumptions; and many nonviolent activ- 
ists [2] hinder revolutionary developments with their non-confrontational tac- 
tics, at times even betraying and endangering those who do not abide by their 

What is new in The Failure of Nonviolence is an application of this cri- 
tique to political developments of the last fifteen years, detailed engagements with 
prominent advocates of nonviolence (among them Gene Sharp, the Dalai Lama, 
and Bob Geldof), and responses to critics of How Nonviolence Protects the State. 

A short evaluation of the The Failure of Nonviolence could simply read 
thus: Once again, Gelderloos skillfully and convincingly discloses the hypocrisy, 
short-sightedness, and (privilege-based) moralism of many nonviolence advo- 
cates. Yet, this would make a blurb rather than a review. So I'll try something else: 
namely, a critique of a few elements of the book, based on agreeing with its basic 
assumptions. It is a bit of a risky undertaking, since it can easily lead to irritation 
in all camps. The divides in the (non)violence debate are deep and public self- 
criticism can easily be interpreted as aiding the opponent. Gelderloos alludes to 
this, when stating: "In my experience, the unfair and often manipulative general- 
izations made by supporters of nonviolence make it much harder for conflictive 
anarchists to make these self-criticisms openly." (p. 30) As much as I agree that 

one has to be precise in formulating one's critique in order not to supply the wrong 
forces, I don't think that completely abstaining from public self-criticism can be 
the answer. It would rather be the end of any productive debate and only further 
deepen the divides that often make such a debate so difficult. 

Some Personal Background 

In order to avoid misconceptions as far as possible, let me spell out some of 
the personal background on which this review is written: I was politicized in the 
context of the German autonomous movement of the late 1980s. "Militant action", 
as we called it, was a given part of our politics. That included participating in black 
blocs (as most people know, black blocs are a product of the German autonomous 
movement), a generally confrontational attitude towards the police and other 
state representatives, and clandestine direct action (spraying graffiti, gluing locks, 
smashing windows, etc.). To this day, I do not question the legitimacy of such 
action in the context of social struggles. 

On top of that, the reflection on the experiences of the urban guerrilla 
groups in Germany (and beyond) of the 1970s was extremely important among 
the radicals of my generation. Despite all of the autonomous critique of the urban 
guerrilla groups, their members were always considered to be comrades. What 
mattered was a strategic evaluation of their struggle, not moral condemnation. 

I am utterly convinced that the use of "violent", "militant", or "combative" 
tactics (the final adjective is the one preferred by Gelderloos - more on terminol- 
ogy later) will always be an inevitable part of social movements and that it is more 
important to develop a tactically and strategically sound way of relating to them 
than to get caught up in abstract ethical debates. I am not, and have never been, a 
nonviolent anarchist. 

Okay, so much for that. Now let's turn to the problems I find in The Failure 
of Nonviolence amidst all of its merits. 

Is Nonviolence Monolithic? 

It is important to note that some experiences which seem to have motivated 
Gelderloos to write the book differ from mine. This probably needs to be consid- 
ered throughout the entire review (although certain parts are more affected by it 
than others). It is up to the individual readers to determine whether Gelderloos's 
experiences or mine are closer to their own. The relevance of what I have to say 
will largely depend on this. 

Gelderloos's characterization of "nonviolence" is not entirely clear. On 
the one hand, he categorically defines it as "an attempt to force nonviolent meth- 
ods across an entire movement", adding in a footnote that "to be a proponent of 
nonviolence is not to simply prefer peace, but to sign up to the peace police and 
attempt to determine the course of the whole movement" (p. 19). On the other 
hand, he also speaks of "dogmatic nonviolence" (p. 11), "nonviolence as an abso- 
lute philosophy" (p. 241), and "nonviolence as an exclusive methodology" (p. 281), 
suggesting that there are also other - acceptable - forms of nonviolence. While 
this can be confusing at times, it is certainly the former notion - nonviolence as an 

of nonviolence on an international scale are actively trying to erase the history, 
presence, and possibility of any forms of struggle that are not strictly nonviolent. 

I would also be interested in discussing how harshly or gently we should 
criticize comrades or potential allies when we perceive them to have done some 
pretty horrible things (i.e. things that would make us no longer consider them 
comrades, like working with the police). 

And I would love it if you would talk more about how a successful diver- 
sity of tactics works between "militants" and proponents of nonviolence in the 
place where you are active. 

Thank you for starting this debate. 

In solidarity, 

I am curious, though, if you think that I succeed in being less insulting, 
and more open to the possibility of working together or engaging in self-criti- 
cism than in How Nonviolence Protects the State. That was my goal. I wonder if I 


I would like to conclude by highlighting points that can make for a fruitful 
debate, if we or any readers were to continue this conversation. First I want to 
summarize a counter- criticism that I have after reading your review. 

To phrase it as kindly as possible, I do not think you did a good job of 
reading my book nor of responding to what I actually wrote. This is important 
because a debate cannot advance if one persons criticisms are based on a distor- 
tion or a hasty misreading of the other persons actual beliefs. 

Fortunately, I think you did an excellent job of framing the debate in a 
friendly, constructive way. As you've no doubt noticed, that is not one of my strong 
suits, and the tone you set made it much easier for me to respond. 

So if I may, these are what I have identified as the important disagree- 
ments between us that are not based on simple misunderstanding. Feel free to add 
any I have left out. 

Terminology: I feel that violence is a counterproductive category, you feel that it 
still makes sense. I pointed out what I saw as confusion and ambiguity in your 
analysis, caused by your continued use of the category "violence". What do you 

Unity: You think that unity is important, but have not said anything regarding my 
actual critique of unity. I added a few more specific historical examples that show 
the pitfalls of unity 

Strategy: You stated that strategy is dependent on having a goal, whereas I critiqued 
the idea of strategy as a path to a set goal, stating that such an idea was based on a 
liberal and rationalist worldview and on an alienation of means and ends. I argued 
for a positional, relational, and contingent vision of strategy directed towards a 
goal that is constantly reenvisioned on the basis of an evolving present struggle, a 
goal that is utopic or horizonal, as in constantly receding, rather than a fixed des- 
tination we can presently define and expect to reach in the future. 

Clear lines: Unless I misunderstood, you expressed a preference for clear lines 
of acceptable and unacceptable tactics and debate about these boundaries, I 
expressed a preference for continuous debate about acceptable actions that would 
never result in consensus. 

Diversity of tactics: You stated it was a no-brainer that a diversity of tactics is better 
than strict nonviolence, I stated that it should be a no-brainer but that proponents 

exclusive, dogmatic, and absolute position - that dominates Gelderloos's account. 
And this is where our perceptions differ. While my experiences with the "peace 
police" are limited [3], I know plenty of nonviolent activists whose outlook I trea- 
sure, who I happily collaborate with in certain campaigns, and who I wholeheart- 
edly respect as radical comrades. 

This might, in fact, seem ironic given my background in the German 
radical milieu. Next to a strong, and militant, autonomous movement, Germany 
also has a very strong nonviolent anarchist current. The country's biggest anarchist 
newspaper, graswurzelrevolution, was founded in 1972 in the context of the anti- 
nuclear and peace movement and explicitly embraces nonviolent anarchism to 
this day. Yet, it is perhaps the long coexistence of militant action and nonviolent 
activism that has led to a fairly relaxed attitude toward the (non)violence debate. 
Yes, the debate flares up every so often, but the arguments are always the same, the 
differences are clear, and, once the ritualistic claims have been made, everyone gets 
back to their daily business. The "diversity of tactics" that Gelderloos advocates 
in The Failure of Nonviolence has long been a "fact on the ground", a reality that 
everyone has to relate to, whether they like it or not. [4] 

So, when Gelderloos writes about an "outrage" with respect to propo- 
nents of nonviolence, and about how "angry" he feels about their conduct (p. 285), 
then he talks about sentiments that I don't share. This is, of course, not to say that 
Gelderloos doesn't have a right to his outrage and anger. I'm sure he's had plenty of 
experiences to justify them. I just haven't. 

Not all of the differences between Gelderloos's perspective and mine are 
based on different experiences, however. Some concern theoretical aspects. Let us 
now focus on those. 

I. Terminology: "Violence doesn't exist" - Really? 

The first chapter of The Failure of Nonviolence is entitled "Violence Doesn't 
Exist". Allow me to go off on a short tangent: When Slayer released the album God 
Hates Us All, the band's vocalist Tom Araya was asked if he really believed that 
was true. His answer was, "No, God doesn't hate us - but it's a really good title." 
"Violence Doesn't Exist" is a really good title, too - but its message is not very 

1. The argument is mainly rhetorical. To explain why violence doesn't exist, 
Gelderloos says, that "it is not a thing" (p. 20). Alright. But neither is the state, capi- 
talism, racism, sexism, or anarchy. Does this mean that none of these phenomena 
exist? . . . Gelderloos mentions the numerous workshops on nonviolence he has 
held and how "no group of people, whether they number five or a hundred, has 
ever agreed on the definition" (p. 21). Gelderloos finds this "curious". I don't. He 
would without doubt get the same result if he held workshops on all of the above- 
mentioned phenomena. And not only that. Even several "things" are defined in 
a variety of ways. How about the difference between a journal, a magazine, and 
a newspaper? A ship, a boat, and a vessel? People can also end up discussing for 
hours whether chess is a sport, a game, or an elitist cultural marker, or whether 
corn flakes belong to the cereals family or constitute their own food group. Very 

few terms, especially complex ones, are clearly denned. [5] If our answer to this 
problem is that these terms can't be used in any meaningful way in discussion, 
we might as well stop discussing. Yes, the term "violence" is often used in confus- 
ing, hypocritical, and nonsensical ways. However, the challenge lies in suggest- 
ing meaningful definitions that make meaningful discussion possible, rather than 
abandoning the debate. 

2. Gelderloos seems to exaggerate the fact that "violence is so vague, so hard to 
define" (p. 25). Even if it is hard for a group of no more than five people to reach 
a definition that satisfies everyone (which, again, goes for any complex term), 
most of us share a very basic understanding of what the term "violence" implies - 
going beyond just "a certain emotional reality" (ibid.), which is the only one that 
Gelderloos seems to acknowledge. [6] When we say, for example, "Be careful when 
arguing with John, he can get violent", we pretty much all know what that means: 
if John doesn't like what we say, he might smash our nose in. When we speak of a 
less violent society, we speak of an end to domestic abuse, gun killings, fist fights at 
the county fair, and so forth. I think we also have a pretty common understanding 
of what it means to have violent parents, a violent partner, to grow up in a violent 
neighborhood, or to fall victim to a violent crime. [7] In fact, to tell people who've 
been in such situations that violence doesn't exist, can become somewhat cynical 
- although that is certainly far from Gelderloos's intentions. 

3. Gelderloos's thrashing of the term "violence" appears a little odd given that the 
main interest in his book comes from his exploration of "nonviolence". I under- 
stand that Gelderloos doesn't see nonviolence as "an absence, avoidance, or trans- 
formation of violence" (p. 24). However, he also states that "perhaps the most 
important argument against nonviolence is that violence as a concept is ambigu- 
ous to the point of being incoherent" (p. 20). This clearly makes the meaning of 
nonviolence dependent on the meaning of violence, as it logically should be when 
you equip a noun with the prefix non. However, when you add the prefix non to 
a term that doesn't have any meaning, it (the meaning, that is) doesn't miracu- 
lously appear - rather, you will end up with yet another term that has none. So, if 
this is the case, what is Gelderloos actually writing about? . . . Gelderloos explains 
that he sees nonviolence as "an attempt to resolve, transform, or suppress those 
things in our society and in our social movements that appear to its practitioners 
to be violent" (p. 24). That's a fair argument. Like the Catholic Church invented 
devil worshipers to get rid of unwanted deviants, the proponents of nonviolence 
invented violence so they can go after protestors they don't like. However, that still 
begs the question of why the term "violence", even in its negative form, attracts so 
much attention. It is hardly a coincidence that Gelderloos uses it in the title for his 
book. Gelderloos might answer along the following lines: "How was the category 
of 'violence' introduced in our strategic debates? I would argue that it was intro- 
duced by the very institution that serves as the gatekeeper to people's perception of 
violence: the media." (p. 26) I don't think so. The media didn't invent our fascina- 
tion with violence. This fascination is rooted much deeper in human culture, and 
there is very little difference between the media and your radical housing project 
next door. Violence - also in the form of "nonviolence" - excites everybody, and 

nonviolence pied Gene Sharp, Bob Geldof, or Chris Hedges, or stuck a flower up 
their nose or whatever it is they feel comfortable with doing? Why haven't they 
taken any actions against any of the police chiefs or mayors who have latched on 
to the language of nonviolence when it is politically convenient? 

Gabriel, you say it's different in the scene that grew up around the 
German autonomous movement. If Sharp or Geldof get pied the next time they go 
to Mannheim or Innsbruck, I'll believe you, but honestly, I'm skeptical. 

Yes, we need to carry out peaceful activities within our struggles, and we 
can benefit a great deal by having people of a peaceful disposition among us, doing 
their own thing or working with us directly, but do they need to frame that as non- 
violence? Absolutely not. Has anyone ever explained why it should be framed as 
nonviolence — as an exclusive practice — without engaging in historical whitewash- 
ing, falsification, oversimplification, or implicit criminalization of the so-called 
violent ones? Not that I've ever seen. So if we're dealing with a tendency that can't 
even justify itself in revolutionary terms without butchering history or strategy, 
why should we act like revolutionary nonviolence is a valid idea? Ball's in their 

You are worried that by making harsh criticisms, I will not be able to 
"bridge the divide". Sometimes I share this concern and think that my approach 
is wrong. The thing is, I don't want to bridge the divide as it currently exists. My 
goal is not to simply establish communication between two camps. I want to chal- 
lenge how everyone thinks about struggle, and to discredit nonviolence (without 
discrediting peaceful forms of struggle). I'm not going to talk about nonviolence 
as a "failure" or something that "protects the State" if I want to just build a bridge 
to it. 

Also, I think you missed my metaphor about pissing in the stream. The 
piss in the stream is the snitching, the lying, the backstabbing, the opportunism, 
the careerism, the coziness with the elite. These things are many times more toxic 
than a harsh criticism. My point was, how can a proponent of nonviolence object 
to rudeness while staying mum about snitching? It's a good litmus test. Anyone 
who has such a reaction probably doesn't deserve our trust. 

I respect the people who try to communicate such heavy criticisms 
politely, in a way that proponents of nonviolence will feel "happy" about, though I 
seriously wonder if they can do so without watering down the substance of those 
criticisms. However, I am closer to those who think it is best to just write off the 
proponents of nonviolence rather than debate them. Is there any use debating with 
a careerist or a snitch? What about debating with someone who maintains a con- 
venient alliance with a careerist or a snitch? If I take on nonviolence, it is primarily 
to engage with those who are undecided, and to show anyone in the nonviolence 
crowd who sincerely believes in revolution that they are burning their bridges. 
It is not my responsibility to educate them about things that at this point should 
really be obvious. But in the face of such invective, maybe they will grasp the con- 
sequences of choosing such unscrupulous political bedfellows, and such dishonest 
ways of silencing other radicals. If the criticisms are deserved, and I think they are, 
then they should by no means feel good upon reading them. That's on them. 

Discourses of unity are vital for the centralization of movements from the Color 
Revolutions to the UK student movement to the plaza occupation movement in 
Spain. It is used by the Greek Left to criminalize the anarchists, and it was also 
used by the Egyptian Left to silence radicals there. Unity features as part of the 
centralist control strategy in the work of Gene Sharp. Gabriel: can you deny this? If 
not, how can you claim that unity is something we need more of, without discuss- 
ing any nuances or reservations? 

Please, don't use any strawmen this time. Unity is not a synonym for 
debate and the building of relationships. The framework I am using to criticize you 
is the following: one in which people seek out relationships with others in struggle, 
communicate and debate especially with those who are different from them, but 
decide on a case by case basis whether to work together or to pursue their own 
line of attack. And when they work together, they embrace conflict and criticism 
as well as solidarity, rather than compromise and consensus. Crimethlnc has put 
out texts on the recent struggles in Spain and Montreal, for example, that show the 
benefit of people taking a critical or autonomous approach, rather than waiting for 
some larger coalition to give them permission to act. I suspect that the model you 
will elaborate, if you go into more detail, has at least some similarities with that old 
classic, the leftist mass movement. I find that model thoroughly discredited. 

False Dichotomies or Warranted Criticisms? 

You sum up my admittedly contradictory efforts to harshly criticize nonviolence 
and also open up the possibility for respectful solidarity with some of the people 
who currently use that framework. "It's a little like saying: "All Americans suck - 
although some are really nice." It's the first part of the message that sticks, not the 
second." At no point in the book do I make a statement about "all" proponents of 
nonviolence. Therefore, a more accurate summation would be "Americans suck 
- although some are really nice." Well, if the shoe fits, know what I mean? And 
the thing is, most radicals from the US would agree with you. You would upset 
the patriotic Americans, but are the patriots really interested in changing what's 
wrong with the place? 

When it comes to nonviolence, harsh criticisms are warranted. They are 
necessary. And they are deserved. Some people who believe in nonviolence avoid 
their philosophy's more ugly tendencies, and some of them are real comrades. 
But by continuing to use the framework of nonviolence, they are perpetuating its 
many problems, or at the least contributing to the confusion. Maybe if ten years 
ago, proponents of nonviolence had cleaned house and challenged all the racism, 
the authoritarianism, the reformism, the snitching, the backstabbing, the lying, 
the assault of other protesters, and all the other bullshit, we could talk about revo- 
lutionary nonviolence. Perhaps. But the ones who sincerely believe in nonviolent 
revolution have not done this. The best of them have made some quiet criticisms 
and then gone on ignoring all the problems, while the rest have accepted and even 
benefited from their marriage of convenience. They've continued sharing the 
same bed with snitches, racists, liars, and careerists. Why hasn't any advocate of 

everybody will want to read about it. Gelderloos must be aware of that. In this 
sense, his statement, "I do not want to waste any more time by talking about vio- 
lence" (p. 29), can only be meant tongue-in-cheek. He talks about violence on 
every page of his book. 

II. Analysis: Where Does Social Change Come From? 

The Failure of Nonviolence includes an ambitious 50-page chapter on "The 
Revolutions of Today". It covers everything from the Oka Crisis and the Second 
Intifada to Occupy and the Syrian Civil War. The success of each "uprising", "move- 
ment", or "revolution" (Gelderloos makes no clear distinction between the terms 
here - probably because such distinctions are hard to make) is assessed according 
to four criteria: "1) whether a movement seized space for new social relations; 2) 
whether it spread an awareness of new ideas (and secondarily if this awareness was 
passive or whether it inspired others to fight); 3) whether it had elite support; 4) 
whether it achieved any concrete gains in improving people's lives." (p. 48) 

Unsurprisingly, Gelderloos reaches the following conclusion: "...after a 
fair evaluation based on the readily available information, what becomes indisput- 
able is that since the end of the Cold War, nonviolent movements have had their 
greatest successes in effecting regime change, helping to inaugurate new govern- 
ments that subsequently disappoint and even betray those movements. They have 
not succeeded in redistributing power in any meaningful way, or putting revolu- 
tionary social relations into practice, despite claiming victory numerous times. 
On the other hand, heterogeneous movements using conflictive methods and a 
diversity of tactics have been the most effective at seizing space and putting new 
social relations into practice." (p. 90) 

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this. Some of the criteria seem very 
general (for example, how exactly do you evaluate "concrete gains in improving 
people's lives"? and which section of society are we talking about?), and it appears 
difficult to apply them to all of these events for someone without first-hand experi- 
ence (which Gelderloos can hardly have in every single case). In particular, though, 
I'm wondering if the distinction between "nonviolent movements" and "heteroge- 
neous movements using conflictive methods and a diversity of tactics" can really 
be made that strictly. Unless a movement is really exclusively nonviolent (are there 
that many?), the nonviolent tactics are a part of the puzzle of a diversity of tactics, 
and the relevant question would then be which role they play in this patchwork 
and how they relate to other tactics. Gelderloos's point would be stronger if he 
said that his survey proved that nonviolent tactics never work, but that others do 
(which, of course, we'd then be curious to learn about in more detail). But to state 
that a "diversity of tactics" works better than the dogmatic use of one particular 
tactic is a bit of a no-brainer and puts us back to square one: Which tactics - or 
which combinations of tactics - are the most effective in a specific historical situ- 
ation? [8] 

I also think that it'd be worth looking closer at some historical develop- 
ments that Gelderloos pays little attention to. A monumental event like the col- 
lapse of the Eastern European communist bloc in 1989-90 - which happened 

largely without "combative" tactics (except for Romania, where this, arguably, did 
not contribute to a more radical development) - is basically ignored. Gelderloos 
contents himself with the observation that "citizens' freedom of action did not 
at all increase" (p. 48) - a statement that I, as someone who grew up close to the 
iron curtain with family friends on the other side, find rather bold. The same 
applies to the following: "The line between democracy and dictatorship is ficti- 
tious. Whatever difference there is is primarily one of formalism and ritual." (p. 
106) Having Austrian grandparents who lived through the Third Reich, I would 
strongly deny that the difference between Austria in 1943 and Austria in 2013 
is fictitious. In 2013, there are no concentration camps, there is no genocide of 
minority populations, and no one is executed for distributing leaflets either. I con- 
sider all of these differences beyond "formalism and ritual". [9] 

The fall of the iron curtain meant more than just a change of govern- 
ment; it meant the eradication of an apparently untouchable totalitarian political, 
economic, and social system. There is a tremendous lesson to be learned here for 
political activists. The decisive question thereby isn't whether the changes led to 
something better or not. The decisive question is how such changes were possible at 
all. Yes, partly the system just imploded, eroded by its own contradictions. Yet, to 
simply leave it at that would be too naive an interpretation of history. Rather, we 
must investigate all of the "silent" and "invisible" forms of everyday resistance that 
contributed to this process - almost all of which fall outside of what most Western 
activists today would regard as "combative" tactics, or even "social movements". 

III. Strategy: What's Next? 

As we have already seen, Gelderloos calls for a "diversity of tactics" (sometimes 
"methods") in opposition to an approach of nonviolence. However, nonviolent 
activists are also for a diversity of methods, they just want them to be nonviolent. 
The difference to "combative" activists is not one of principle but one of drawing 
different boundaries. Any "diversity of tactics" approach that wants to be taken 
seriously must draw boundaries somewhere. I assume (and certainly hope) that no 
proponent of such an approach would consider it okay to bomb a kindergarten full 
of four-year- olds in order to take a stand against the state-run education system. 
However, once you admit that limits need to be drawn somewhere, the discussion 
is no longer about who draws them (proponents of nonviolence) and who doesn't 
("combative" folks), but where they need to be drawn. This means that you move 
from an ideological debate to a tactical one; from a place where abstract poles 
("diversity of tactics" vs. "nonviolence") inhibit fruitful discussion to a place where 
such a discussion becomes possible. In other words, "we", the "combative" radicals, 
must not get stuck in discussions about whether it can be okay/beneficial/neces- 
sary to throw rocks at the police, to burn down an army recruitment center, or to 
prepare for armed struggle; instead, we must establish when it is okay/beneficial/ 
necessary to do so. [10] This seems much more promising than to continue kick- 
ing a foe that is already on the ground. Gelderloos himself states that "Nonviolence 
Has Lost the Debate" - or, at least, that's the title he gives the introduction to The 
Failure of Nonviolence. 

of differing methods of struggle, but to eliminate all other methods. This aspira- 
tion is clear in Gene Sharp's work, which in case you have not noticed, has become 
popular of late. 

I really like your argument in point 6, that violence has to go in a liberated 
society, and that nonviolent activists provide an important moral compass. This is 
a fertile terrain for more discussion. It is another point where we have a substantial 
disagreement. I do not believe that violence has to go in a liberated society, nor do 
I believe that is even possible. Things that many people describe as violent now are 
an inherent part of society, I believe. I'm not talking about mass murder or rape — I 
would love to help create a world where those things never happened. But things 
like fights or feuds or the simple fact of death have been with us forever and I think 
they always will be. There are other things that many people classify as violent that 
I would defend and preserve. Things that I consider to be much more ethical than 
holding hands and singing songs. For one, fighting back against oppression. 

I admire those societies that fought back against colonization. Some of 
them continue to fight back, whereas the peaceful ones have been assimilated or 
annihilated. That should be a lesson for all of us. When a group of people try 
to conquer, rape, and enslave — in a word, to rule — it is simply not an ethical or 
"moral" response to sing songs to them, to try to change their minds but refrain 
from striking them down. 

These movements of ours are not going to result in a Utopia, but even if 
they did, every Eden has its end. A living practice of self-defense is vital to any 
liberated society. 

Point 7: false. I explicitly say we should not participate in tactics we dis- 
agree with ethically (p. 258) and give some indications of ethical consequences I 
find unacceptable. 

8: Very true. I discuss this point in the present book and in the earlier 
book. But the category of "violence" again leads you into confusion. Violence, 
since it is not a thing but an ambiguous category, does not have a set psychological 
impact. Some forms of combative resistance can have a liberating effect on those 
who use them, and even on their targets. Frantz Fanon deals with this in depth. 

9: This is funny. Some people criticized How Nonviolence Protects the State 
for talking too much about armed struggle (primarily in reference to the '60s and 
'70s) and now you criticize me for talking too much about riots in the new book. 
Well, riots and other street conflicts have been pretty relevant in the last few years, 
and I never once claim they will solve all our problems, quite the contrary. But 
from the Introduction, you should have known that an analysis of armed struggle 
movements 30 or more years ago falls outside the scope of this book. But I accept 
the criticism. The book would have been better if I had spoken more about other 
forms of attacking power that don't rely on having a large group of people backing 
you up, especially since that's not an everyday occurrence. 

You object pretty strongly to my critique of unity. So, in the interest of 
real debate, I will respectfully throw down the following gauntlet: discourses of 
unity are commonly used by Trotskyists, ngos, and all other sorts of authoritar- 
ians to portray their opponents as minorities and then silence those minorities. 

on the beverage aisle: the flavor of the month will do." I engage extensively in 
discussion about useful tactics, and more importantly about the ways such dis- 
cussions can become more effective. If you really believe that I do so in such a 
superficial way that "the flavor of the month will do," I would like you to say it 
explicitly and with evidence. Otherwise such a comparison only adds confusion to 
an already shaky argument. 

Maybe you missed that discussion because I do not conclude in the way 
that I surmise you would have liked: this kind of tactic is okay, this kind of tactic 
is not. It is exactly that kind of conclusion I disagree with. For me, the problem is 
far more complex and circumstantial. One thing I think combative protesters need 
to avoid is hurting other protesters, for example by accidentally hitting them with 
rocks. The solution, though, is not to ban a certain tactic, but to do the thing well, 
and to be critical when it is done poorly. I explicitly favor this approach through- 
out the book. 

Hitting fellow protestors with rocks has actually happened, so it's a far 
more real problem than the emotionally charged hypothetical of bombing a kin- 
dergarten to protest institutional education, which is the unhelpful example you 
provide. In doing so you also ignore that I do in fact express disagreement with 
the calculated killing of bystanders (p. 258). However, I do not disagree in order 
to create a safe and stable place of moral certainty of the kind you seem to want; 
instead I immediately problematize it by discussing the inevitability of innocent 
deaths in a brutal, complex conflict like a war against occupation, as in Iraq. The 
point here? Any moral solid ground or unwavering compass points would be an 
illusion. Things aren't that simple. 

In your next point, you provide another misrepresentation. You quote: 
" "Unity is a trojan horse for centralization and domination", he writes (p. 280), 
while I wonder how we can make any substantial social change if we "simply 
ignore each other". Even if it is difficult at times, I think that debate across differ- 
ences of opinion and a willingness to cooperate across these differences, is essen- 
tial for fundamental social change." My quote is taken out of context. In fact I 
spend much more time than you do talking about the need to debate and work 
together. The difference is I do not believe we need to always work together, but 
that in certain situations ignoring others makes the most sense. Obligatory unity 
is not only authoritarian, it is also completely unrealistic. We can't even possibly 
know all of the other people who are participating in a social struggle. How can 
we pretend to work with them? Only if we mistake a social struggle for a formal 
movement, full of named organizations that can be easily mapped or lumped into 
the same coalition. 

I also provide specific historical examples of how authoritarians strategi- 
cally use unity as a trojan horse to centralize movements but you choose not to 
respond to these examples, only to skew and twist. I suspect that in this case, it is 
not because you did a sloppy job of reading, but because we have a very substantive 
difference around the question of unity. 

In your point 5 , 1 believe you are again underestimating what nonviolence 
is setting out to do on a global scale: not to recognize the simultaneous existence 

In the book's final chapter, characteristically entitled "A Diversity of 
Methods", Gelderloos does indeed engage in concrete discussions about the appro- 
priateness of certain tactics under certain circumstances. This, to me, is the book's 
most interesting part, and the following critical remarks will mostly relate to it. 

1. Gelderloos sometimes presents slogans as arguments, falling short of further 
investigation. For example, he says that "nobody owns a protest" (p. 251). That is, 
without doubt, correct - morally, philosophically, legally. But what does it mean? 
That you can attend any protest and not give a shit about the organizers' inten- 
tions? Do we need to grant someone the right of "ownership" to an event before 
we respect that someone might have a greater investment in it than we do? That 
would be a strange understanding of anarchism, it seems. [11] If I don't like the 
organizers' wishes or expectations, I don't need to attend the event. I can join up 
with those who share my wishes and expectations, so we can organize our own. 
(Needless to say, the notion of a "mass protest" implies a variety of events.) 

2. A similar problem arises with Gelderloos's demands for "basic minimums" 
among different groups of protestors when "it is not possible for the different sides 
to simply ignore each other" (p. 281). He writes: "The peaceful ones should never 
aid the police in arresting or surveilling the combative ones, the combative ones 
should make sure never to do anything that physically harms the peaceful ones, 
and none of them should prevent the actions of the others." (ibid.) This sounds 
great, but it's not really an answer to anything, unless we clarify why physical harm 
is more important than other harm ("violence" obviously can't be a criterion), at 
what point one prevents the actions of others, and so forth. [12] Most importantly, 
though, such basic minimums are way too wide to be strategically helpful. We 
need discussions about useful tactics, otherwise we select means of protest in the 
same way we select soft drinks on the beverage aisle: the flavor of the month will 

3. Gelderloos might, of course, disagree with my call for discussions about strat- 
egy. He states that "strategy as a path to a set destination [is] a view I increasingly 
disagree with" (p. 287). To be honest, I'm not exactly sure which kinds of strat- 
egy Gelderloos does agree with, since developing a strategy seems dependent on 
having a goal, but that's besides the point. What's important is to coordinate our 
actions in a way that makes them effective on a broad scale. 

4. Even this, however, might go too far for Gelderloos. "Unity is a trojan horse for 
centralization and domination", he writes (p. 280), while I wonder how we can 
make any substantial social change if we "simply ignore each other". Even if it is 
difficult at times, I think that debate across differences of opinion and a willingness 
to cooperate across these differences, is essential for fundamental social change. 
To defiantly respond to differences of opinion with, "Okay, you have yours and I 
have mine", or, "Do what you want, just don't get in my way", is liberating only in a 
crass individualistic sense. It is also reminiscent of a protestant Gewissensethik, an 
"ethics of conscience", where we can all feel good about ourselves, while the wider 
social picture disappears or remains something we only pay lip service to. In other 
words, our self-image becomes more important than revolutionary consciousness. 
To me, this is one of the biggest problems in activist culture today. Yes, there are 

sites of resistance everywhere, but their ability to really challenge the state and 
capital have so far proven minimal. And one reason is that there is too little, not 
too much unity. Gelderloos writes: "Any practice that attempts to impose homo- 
geneity in the name of unity violates the sense of solidarity and mutual respect 
necessary for diverse currents of struggle to coexist." (p. 281) I would reformulate 
thus: "Solidarity and mutual respect come to life in any serious attempt to create 
unity in diverse currents of struggle without imposing homogeneity." 

5. Here is how Gelderloos explains the notion of "diversity of tactics": "At its most 
basic, the concept of a diversity of tactics is nothing more than the recognition that 
different methods of struggle exist side by side." (p. 18) That's a fine recognition. 
Yet, who would deny that? If the proponents of nonviolence did, they wouldn't 
criticize other methods of struggle - they would simply ignore them. What is at 
stake is not only to recognize the existence of different methods of struggle, but to 
collectively assess which of these methods we want to use and combine. 

6. This process obviously requires widespread discussion, but widespread discus- 
sion only works if all participants and their views are taken seriously. But is there 
anything that the proponents of nonviolence have to tell "us", the "combative" 
activists? I believe so. Nonviolent activists remind us that in a liberated society - 
that is, according to my understanding, a society in which individuals can develop 
freely on the basis of social justice - it is not just authority, hierarchy, patriarchy, or 
racism that have to go, but also violence (and, as I explained above, I do think that 
violence exists). This means that nonviolent activists provide an important moral 
compass for our actions, and it also means that they have an ethical advantage in 
our discussions on tactics. "Combative" activists might have a strategic (and per- 
haps aesthetic) problem with people holding hands and singing folk songs against 
the war, but these people are hardly doing anything that in itself violates our vision 
of a liberated world (save perhaps some of those songs). Injuring or killing some- 
one, however, does, which is why actions that might imply such consequences 
require a proper explanation for why we accept to engage in them nonetheless. 
So, when Gelderloos writes, "It does not matter in the least which . . . activities are 
'violent' or 'nonviolent'" (p. 242), he is right in that the categorization does not 
matter, but it does matter whether we are talking about wanting to form a picket 
line or to kneecap someone. These actions have different ethical implications that 
require different forms of explanation. 

7. If we are not willing to differentiate between different forms of actions according 
to their ethical implications, the danger of trivializing violence is always looming. 
There are some semantic mirror images of Gelderloos's contention that "Violence 
doesn't exist" that are popular in radical circles as one-size-fits-all justifications 
for "combative" action, such as "Violence is everywhere" or "We live in a violent 
society". In the worst case, such credos can be pretty scary. 

8. There is also a danger of underestimating the psychological impact of certain 
"combative" methods. This, for example, is an element I would add to Gelderloos's 
criteria for evaluating the effects of social movements. The use of methods that do 
physical harm to people, spread fear, and intensify an already existing situation of 
social insecurity and hostility - no matter how justified and necessary they are, 

that goes on for pages. If you had carefully read the chapter, you would not infer 
"that you can attend any protest and not give a shit about the organizers' intentions". 
All of the doubts you raise are addressed in the book itself. It makes for a boring 
debate indeed if one person has to constantly repeat themselves in the face of bla- 
tant misrepresentations, quotes presented out of context, and misunderstandings. 

As I move on to your second point, I find another point of difference. I 
suggest minimum agreements (like not snitching) not to clarify things and end 
debate, but to encourage debate. Gabriel seems to have a legalistic mind ("it's not 
really an answer to anything, unless we clarify..."). The way you talk about drawing 
a line of acceptable and inacceptable behaviors resembles the logic of a legal code. 
The point of a legal code is to be obeyed, which is why it must be clear, and not 
open to anybody's interpretation. My purposes are completely at odds with those 
of a legal code. I don't want a clear code of conduct, not in a protest, not for my life, 
and not for the struggles I participate in. 

I personally want to extend the idea as far as possible that talking to the 
cops is wrong, but as an ethic we discuss, not as a new law. For example, say some- 
one talks to the cops to get a restraining order against an abusive partner. If we 
want a clear boundary, then we would have to punish (errr, sorry, "hold account- 
able") this person for violating the rule (ahem, "agreement"?) against talking to 
cops, same as any old snitch. The only way out would be to amend the law and add 
articles of cases when it is acceptable to talk to the cops. But what if the person in 
question actually had access to a solid community that would support them and 
help them keep away their ex, but instead they brought in the law as a vindictive 
attack? Now the amendment needs an amendment. 

If anarchists have to be lawyers, we are doing something horribly wrong. 
Reality is way too complex to be able to come up with a clear set of boundaries, 
in abstract and in advance, to give clarity to every eventuality. I want to say this 
loud and clear: the legalistic project is a pathological endeavor. The obsession with 
some perfected framework, some final state, an end to the debate, is a statist neu- 
rosis. It is no surprise that someone who grows up in this society would have such 
a neurosis, but it is one an anarchist would do well to root out. 

I am firmly against talking to cops. But I have had friends who have gotten 
restraining orders, and I stand by them. Is this hypocrisy? No. It is a recognition 
of the complexity of real life. It is also an approach that encourages more debate 
and discussion on a case by case basis, because every situation is different. In the 
example I cite, we've had to debate whether we as anarchists were doing enough to 
support our friends and make the police obsolete, and whether our friends really 
didn't have any better options, and why. We can't have a clear list of bylaws that 
tells us what is right and what is wrong. It makes far more sense to improve our 
communication, hone our ability to debate, ponder sensible ethics, and discuss 
responses to specific situations. It must be a never-ending process. That's what col- 
lective decision-making is all about. 

Gabriel, your closing sentence to this point demonstrates the flippancy 
with which you misrepresent my arguments. "We need discussions about useful 
tactics, otherwise we select means of protest in the same way we select soft drinks 

What about your example of Austria? Without a doubt, most people in 
Austria today have it better than they did in the '30s and '40s. But cant that have 
something to do with the changing place of Austrian society in relation to world 
capitalism and world governance? Remember that I'm using a global analysis. 
While it is an easy tendency to react to such a crass, extreme statement as my own 
(that the difference between democracy and dictatorship is formalistic) by resort- 
ing to personal stories of tragedy and anguish, how useful is this in coming up with 
a clear analysis? 

Am I dealing with the welfare of the Austrian people in my book, or am 
I looking at the effects of democracy on a world scale? Clearly I'm doing the latter. 
As I already point out in the book, in democratic countries around the world, we 
can find slavery, genocide, and the worst forms of misery. Okay: people in Austria 
are no longer under the knife. That is no reason to give democracy a free pass. The 
knife has moved elsewhere, and make no mistake: it is bigger. 

One of democracy's strengths as a system of social control is its ability 
to successfully evade criticism or an accurate understanding of its nature. You're 
right that I made my argument in a way that does not pay respect to the very real 
differences and improvements that specific societies have experienced. But my 
central argument remains valid, and there is a strategic reason for making it. 

Drawing the Lines 

In your next section, you ask where we draw the line when we decide what 
tactics are acceptable and necessary. Then you offer some criticisms of how I deal 
with this question (in Chapter 10). To start with, I want to clarify that my intent is 
not to draw the line, but to offer suggestions on how people using different meth- 
ods can interact in common spaces or debate about what forms of participation 
are acceptable and effective. Giving people an answer is less helpful and less real- 
istic than suggesting how people can find that answer for themselves, especially 
when it comes to something that must be constantly decided and reinvented, like 
acceptable participation in a social struggle. I think it would be worse than useless 
to create and advocate a framework that measures when certain kinds of action 
should be allowed. Rather than trying to impose a new set of rules, it makes more 
sense to accept the inevitability of other people in a social movement doing things 
we strongly disagree with, and strategize about how to respond in such cases. This 
is a central question of organization and interaction in a decentralized, multi- 
cephalous struggle that has no ruling group or structures of governance. 

Your criticisms of chapter 10 start with the following: "Gelderloos some- 
times presents slogans as arguments, falling short of further investigation. For 
example, he says that "nobody owns a protest" (p. 251). That is, without doubt, 
correct - morally, philosophically, legally. But what does it mean? That you can 
attend any protest and not give a shit about the organizers' intentions?" 

This is the only answer you suggest, and it is false, through and through. 
Anyone with any doubts need only go to the page you cite. I do not use the phrase, 
"nobody owns a protest" as a slogan, but as one articulation in a chain of arguments 

and no matter whether we call them "violent" or "combative" or something else 
- rarely leave people unaffected: the perpetrators, the victims, and everyone in- 
between. Yes, billions of people are subjected to structural violence every day. But 
if you're engaged in physical confrontation every day, if you must wonder whether 
you make it back alive every time you leave the house, if arrest is a constant con- 
cern, it will wear you and your community down in particularly gruesome ways. 
Again, under certain circumstances paying this price might be inevitable and nec- 
essary to make life for you and your community better in the long run. But it's 
nothing that can ever be taken lightheartedly. And it's crucial to reflect on all pos- 
sibilities to avoid such situations. [13] 

9. Finally, there is an aspect to Gelderloos's writings about "combative" forms of 
resistance, which I find curious: he writes almost exclusively about riots and black 
blocs. To me, this is far from the most interesting part of discussing "non-nonvi- 
olent" approaches to protest. Admittedly, I don't really understand the excitement 
on either side. The moral outrage these activities cause among politicians, the 
media, and dogmatic nonviolent types is laughable. On any given Saturday night, 
there was more property damage, unruly behavior, and fighting with cops in the 
Tyrolean beer tents I frequented as a youth than there is in most black bloc pro- 
tests. Plus, who really cares about a window at McDonald's? Yet, that's exactly why 
the political ramifications of such acts must not be overrated either. Riots serve 
many purposes: they empower people, they vent anger, they make problems obvi- 
ous, they can temporarily turn power relations upside down, they politicize, they 
inspire, all of that. Yet, there is a difference between strongly sympathizing with 
Rancid singing, "I'm a kid who's got a lot of problems - if I throw a brick maybe 
the brick will go and solve them" ("I Wanna Riot"), and believing that this might 
actually be true. The brick might cure some of the problems' symptoms (which is 
great), but it's not gonna eradicate the root. In order for this to happen, we need to 
achieve radical social change; and to achieve radical social change we need tactics 
that do more than "fuck shit up". In other words, I think we need in-depth evalu- 
ations of alf and elf tactics used in the 1990s and early 2000s, reflections on the 
complex of imperialism, liberation struggle, and guerrilla warfare, and discussions 
on armed struggle in the metropolis, rather than more black bloc debates and 
defenses of riots. This would give our discussions of "combative" forms of resis- 
tance a different dimension. 

Beyond Dichotomies 

Gelderloos laments that "direct debate between the idea of nonviolence and 
that of a diversity of tactics has become increasingly rare" (p. 14). He hopes that 
"we can develop a more solidaristic communication on both sides" (p. 285). He 
also speaks of a need to "support one another's forms of participation in the strug- 
gle" (p. 265). Finally, he makes it clear that "my aim with this book is not to con- 
vert or delegitimize every person who prefers nonviolence" (p. 19). This is all very 
honorable. Yet, what is his contribution to making it possible? 

It is clear for Gelderloos who the good guys and who the bad guys are in 
the (non)violence debate: "Over and over again, nonviolence proponents put all 

their emphasis on an authoritarian insistence everyone adopt their form of pro- 
test, often devoid of any content. Even in the heart of nonviolent movements, one 
is often hard-pressed to find any real articulation of a critique against exploita- 
tion, domination, or the power structures that create these problems. Those who 
support a diversity of tactics, on the other hand, tend to remain on point, with 
no alienation between their ideas and methods, attacking capitalism in their dis- 
course as well as in moments of protest and action." (p. 138) It is the nonviolent 
activists who "have injected an implicit hierarchy into the conversation that arises 
when two different moods of action conflict" (p. 267); it is them who "have created 
the exact sort of polemicized environment that 'nonviolent communication' tries 
to avoid, in which two sides close ranks and face off" (p. 30). With verbal broad- 
sides like this, it doesn't make much of a difference if Gelderloos every now and 
again provides some band-aids by conceding that "people who personally favor 
peaceful tactics, and even those whose concept of revolution is to work for peace, 
who follow a philosophy of doing no harm, should be respected as part of the 
struggle" (p. 241). [14] It's a little like saying: "All Americans suck - although some 
are really nice." It's the first part of the message that sticks, not the second. 

When it comes to judging the political record of nonviolent activists, 
Gelderloos pulls no punches either: "Nonviolence has failed on a global level. It has 
proven to be a great friend to governments, political parties, police departments, 
and ngos, and a traitor to our struggles for freedom, dignity, and well-being. The 
vast majority of its proponents have jumped ship to cozy up to the media, the State, 
or wealthy benefactors, using any cheap trick, manipulation, or form of violence 
(like attacking fellow protesters or helping the cops carry out arrests) that comes in 
handy to win the contest, even if it means the division and death of the movement. 
Many have proven themselves to be opportunists, politicians, or careerists. And 
a principled minority who actually have remained true to their historical move- 
ments still have not answered for past failings or current weaknesses." (p. 18) Or: 
"At best, nonviolence can oblige power to change its masks, to put a new political 
party on the throne and possibly expand the social sectors that are represented in 
the elite, without changing the fundamental fact that there is an elite that rules and 
benefits from the exploitation of everybody else. And if we look at all the major 
rebellions of the last two decades, since the end of the Cold War, it seems that non- 
violence can only effect this cosmetic change if it has the support of a broad part of 
the elite — usually the media, the wealthy, and at least a part of the military, because 
nonviolent resistance has never been able to resist the full force of the State. When 
dissidents do not have this elite support, strict nonviolence seems like the surest 
way to kill a movement..." (p. 11) [15] 

Gelderloos wants others to "sympathize with the reasons why many of us 
are angry about this topic" (p. 285). The reasons being, as I understand them, the 
treacherous attitudes of nonviolent activists. Okay. But how does he expect non- 
violent activists - treacherous or not - to feel after reading paragraphs such as the 
above? Happy? [16] 

In his "Comments on How Nonviolence Protects the State", Gelderloos 
addresses concerns about the tone of his critique as follows: "I find it essential to 

very fundamental change, but you only enter into it briefly. 

I'll defend my argument as best I can, even though I don't fully under- 
stand yours. Part of my family is Russian. Although they certainly appreciate some 
of the changes brought about by democracy (though, to be fair, many of these 
changes actually date to glasnost and perestroika), they unanimously say that life 
was better under the Soviet Union. If you believe in statistics, the majority tends 
to hold the same opinion. This has even been the case, in at least a few polls, in 
former East Germany. 

What about the non-formal differences, like being able to distribute pam- 
phlets? At this point you've shifted the frame of reference from the Soviet Union to 
Nazi Austria, but the question is still valid, as people also got in trouble for hand- 
ing out pamphlets in the Soviet Union, though much less frequently in its latter 
decades. Without hyperbole, how many ex-bloc countries can we reasonably char- 
acterize as no better off than before? Belarus, Romania, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, 
Kazakhstan, and Bulgaria, at the least, wouldn't you agree? These are still basically 
police states in the classic sense. And Russia is a toss-up. As for Uzbekistan, I am 
reasonably sure there have been more political killings and torture there in the 
two decades after the transition than in the two decades before. So, by claiming an 
absolute difference between dictatorship and democracy, aren't we just reinforcing 
the democratic mythology that covers up such abuses much more effectively than 
any dictatorship ever did? Any time a democracy does the same things as a dic- 
tatorship, its defenders simply say, "But that isn't a real democracy." I could make 
the same argument in defense of dictatorships, and fairly too, since according to a 
central ideology they commonly hold, dictatorships are based on social harmony 
and protecting society from outside destabilizing elements. If a system directs vio- 
lence against its own people, it must not be a true dictatorship. 

If you read the more thorough explanations of my analysis of democracy 
(Chapters 5 and 6), I think you'll get where I'm coming from. When I talk about 
freedom of action, I'm not talking about the common list of things like free speech 
or the ability to buy what we want and travel where we want, provided we have the 
money. I'm talking about the self-organization of our own lives. I think that with 
the advance of capitalism, people have less control over their own lives, at least 
in many aspects, than they did under the Soviet Union. The former simply did 
not have the power to intervene in daily life to the extent that capitalist democra- 
cies 20 years later do. Yes, it was a monstruous and intrusive bureaucracy, but a 
large part of the difference is that it was more heavy handed, not that it was more 

Is "free speech" just a formalistic change? That depends. Without a doubt, 
it's nice to be able to complain. But one of the innovations of democracy is its abil- 
ity to harness our expression for its own maintenance. In this context, "formalis- 
tic" does not mean insubstantial. It means that the forms used for the reproduction 
of power have changed, and under democracy, "free speech" along with elections 
and a shifting conception of freedom are some of the new forms that uphold our 
domination. Most of the speech that is supposedly free is actually a form of par- 
ticipation in the reproduction of power. 

there, although I would also warn that if another mass movement appears there, it 
may well be nonviolent beyond your wildest nightmares (as I discuss in the book, 
struggles in Spain have historically been combative and accepted a diversity of 
tactics at the very least, but due to the nature of the Spectacle the mass movements 
that appeared here in 2011 were extremely nonviolent in their beginnings). 

In the US, the UK, and many other places, nonviolence has been based 
on reversing what should be a no-brainer. Nonviolence here means denying the 
legitimacy and effectiveness of other forms of struggle, denouncing a diversity of 
tactics, and even erasing the histories of struggles that were not pacifist. Both this 
book and the earlier one are full of such examples. (Did you not notice?!) And 
this is also true of nonviolence on an international scale. The Color Revolutions 
around the world are based on a model of exclusive nonviolence, and Gene Sharp 
emphasizes the need for such exclusivity in his writing. You would know that if 
you had read my book more carefully. 

But maybe you do realize that, and choose instead to focus on the more 
important question of which tactics are "the most effective in a specific historical 
situation?" You're right. Diversity of tactics is a no-brainer, and it's not enough. We 
need to go farther, and I argue as much in Chapter 10. But it's not fair to suggest 
that I don't explore this question. It should be common sense that you don't look 
to a survey, an overview, for detailed discussion of tactics and strategy. I take on 
specific cases, in detail, to talk about the limits of nonviolence in Chapters 5 and 
6, and some of the accomplishments of combative activities, specifically riots and 
black blocs, in Chapter 7. Chapter 9, moreover, is dedicated to effectiveness of 
conflictive methods, specifically examining complementary relationships between 
peaceful and forceful forms of participation. 

Is it possible that you were able to write your review so quickly because 
you didn't get to Chapter 9? I'm joking, of course, but hopefully you see where I'm 
going with this. It doesn't make for a good debate if we can't cover new ground. 

And speaking of having to go back over the same ground, it's not true 
that I "pay little attention" to the collapse of the Eastern European communist bloc 
(try Chapter 8, pp. 206-209). I just don't talk about it in my survey in Chapter 3, 
because that chapter deals with occurrences after the end of the Cold War. You 
describe this collapse as being free of combative tactics. I see you've chosen to 
ignore my discussion of the movement in East Germany, which included riots 
and street fighting. Perhaps a more important debate is whether this movement 
led to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. I think a more important factor was that 
the Soviet elite saw they could increase their power and wealth by transitioning 
to democracy. This was also the fate of the last fascist countries in Europe. Social 
rebellions played an important role, but in the end the elite was never overthrown. 
They stayed in power, and increased their power. So aren't we doing ourselves a 
disservice by talking about revolution? 

I think your bigger beef is with my characterization of the change that 
took place with the end of the Soviet Union. I say it was overwhelmingly a for- 
malistic change. I accept that this can come off as crass, hyperbolic, and just plain 
wrong. I think you could make an interesting argument for how this constituted a 

avoid an academic politeness in these debates, as though we were talking about 
abstract concepts and not matters of life and death. I think that in the face of 
hypocrisy, manipulation, lies, collaboration with the authorities, and cowardice 
dressed up as sophistication, outrage is not only permissible, it is necessary." (p. 
285) The "matters of life and death" part might be a touch over-dramatic when 
mainly discussing black blocs (especially when calling the difference between dic- 
tatorship and democracy "fictitious" at the same time), but that has no relevance 
for the argument itself. Perhaps it really is necessary to be this outspoken when 
tackling the issue. Still, the question remains: Can this, in any way, help us bridge 
divides? I have my doubts. I rather believe that it will reinforce them. 

In the "Comments on How Nonviolence Protects the State", Gelderloos 
characterizes people who have expressed general agreement with the book's points 
but discomfort with the way they were presented as folks who "wanted to piss in 
the stream and drink from it too" (p. 285). How about: No one pisses in the stream 
and we all drink from it? 


Peter Gelderloos essentially says two things: 1. Nonviolent resistance is not 
effective. 2. Nonviolent activists (all or many or some - as stated in the beginning, 
this is not entirely clear) are dogmatic. Let's say, for the sake of the argument, that 
Gelderloos is correct on both counts. But then what? In fact, Gelderloos himself 
points the way: "We need to develop a collective intelligence about when is the 
right moment to attack, when is the right moment to hold our ground, when to 
shout and make noise, and when merely to be present. Sometimes we must take 
to the streets to celebrate, other times to mourn. Sometimes to attack and destroy, 
other times dance, or occupy, or break the asphalt and plant a garden." (p. 267) I 
hope that these are the exact questions he will tackle in his next book, with the 
same eagerness and thoroughness he has mustered to save us from the threat of 
nonviolence. [17] 

No one with the slightest interest in revolutionary activism and the 
"violence vs. nonviolence" debate will regret reading The Failure of Nonviolence. 
Whether it helps you confirm your "combative" beliefs and practices or challenges 
you to defend and sharpen your "nonviolent" ones, you will not make it through 
the text without wanting to gather your friends and comrades for long, long hours 
of discussions. Again and again. Guaranteed. What more could you want from a 

Gabriel Kuhn 
(August 2013) 


[1] The book was self-published in 2005. An expanded version was published by 
South End Press in 2007. 

[2] Gelderloos has left the term "activism" behind, because it "was an ugly term, 
and it is a fitting label for a defunct practice" (p. 293). I will still use it in this review 
as a shorthand. (In fact, despite his reservations, Gelderloos frequently uses the 

term "activists" in his book as well.) 

[3] There is a sense in Gelderloos's book that I often encounter in "combative" cir- 
cles, namely, that every time someone interferes with "combative" actions during 
a protest, it is a case of peace policing. I think that interpretation is not entirely 
justified. I have witnessed interferences that had nothing to do with anyone peace 
policing (let alone unmasking other protestors or handing them over to the police), 
only with other "combative" protestors - often rightfully, in my opinion - believ- 
ing that a certain charge was, right there and then, irresponsible, self-defeating, or 

[4] Speaking from my own experience, the worst that might happen is that a non- 
violent anarchist publisher hesitates to publish one of your pieces because you are 
deemed a "black bloc anarchist". Yet, I think that's hardly anything to get worked 
up about - the label is kind of amusing, it is in some way applicable, and there are 
plenty of other publishers. 

[5] Gelderloos continues his critique of the term "violence" by writing: "It [vio- 
lence] is a category, a human construct in which we choose to place a wide array of 
actions, phenomena, situations, and so forth." (p. 20) But this is the very definition 
of what terms are - they are all human constructs in which we place all sorts of 
things (and non-things). I might also add that I think Gelderloos fails in replacing 
the term "violence" with supposedly less vague and incoherent terms. He writes: 
"If I have to refer to a body of methods or tactics that are usually excluded by 
nonviolence, I will talk about 'illegal', 'combative', 'conflictive', or 'forceful' actions, 
as the case may be." (p. 29) "Illegal" is certainly not incoherent, but it is a good 
choice? Many nonviolent activists I know do illegal things all the time. And can't 
a blockade be "conflictive"? The burning of a draft card "combative"? And what 
exactly is a "forceful" method or tactic? 

[6] Interestingly enough, Gelderloos writes the following with respect to the 
term "revolution": "Even though revolution is a term with many definitions, it is 
informed by experiences of the struggle we often share. This vague commonality, 
the fact that we are on some level struggling together even though our reasons 
and concepts differ, is why we can criticize one another's concept of revolution 
without necessarily agreeing on what revolution means: because concepts inform 
practices, and practices meet with different results when they are put to use in the 
streets. . . . This, in my mind, is the complicated, suspended nature of reality, often 
lacking any objective coordinates but still full of pressing needs and imminent 
truths." (p. 33) I'm not exactly sure why this very logic wouldn't apply to the term 
"violence" as well. 

[7] Gelderloos himself makes repeated use of the colloquial consensus on what 
violence is, for example when he repeatedly speaks of "police violence", when 
he entitles a chapter "How the peaceful can benefit from violence", or when he 
explains: "Even those who believe they do not like violence benefit from the more 
dynamic space that is created when a diversity of tactics is at play" (p. 278). All of 
these usages of the term only make sense because such a consensus exists. 
[8] Another word on Gelderloos's claim that an exclusive use of "non-combative" 
methods only leads to superficial and cosmetic change: At one point, he writes 

uprisings using quantitative and reductionist methods that simplify and hide the 
actual histories, whereas others like Rebecca Solnit refer to an unnamed histori- 
cal record that supposedly speaks for itself, and given that in How Nonviolence 
Protects the State I already dismantled the lies about supposed nonviolent victories 
in the legendary social movements (all of which occurred before the end of the 
Cold War, in a very different geopolitical context), I believe it is useful to survey 
recent uprisings in a way that does not provide handy reductionist statistics nor a 
deep understanding of each and every history, but that can provide a basic over- 
view or a feeling for the patterns at work. 

I already acknowledged that such a survey is inevitably flawed, but also 
useful. If we keep the flaws in mind, we can minimize them while making better 
use of what the survey can provide. You allude to the flaws — nothing new there to 
debate — but do not name a single instance in which you disagree with my inter- 
pretation of one of the histories being surveyed. And unlike the nonviolent statisti- 
cians, I made my interpretations explicitly. So really all you're doing is repeating 
what I already wrote, but framing it as a criticism of my work. What's the sense 
in that? The benefit about the survey I provide is that all the interpretations are 
transparent. Anyone who wants to dispute the patterns I describe (rather than just 
suggest they are preconceived, as you do without a shred of evidence) can chal- 
lenge the interpretations. "The UK student movement actually did put new social 
relations into practice," for example, or "such and such movement was actually 

The qualm that you instead choose to elaborate on is the following: 

"I'm wondering if the distinction between "nonviolent movements" and "het- 
erogeneous movements using conflictive methods and a diversity of tactics" 
can really be made that strictly. Unless a movement is really exclusively non- 
violent (are there that many?), the nonviolent tactics are a part of the puzzle 
of a diversity of tactics, and the relevant question would then be which role 
they play in this patchwork and how they relate to other tactics. Gelderloos's 
point would be stronger if he said that his survey proved that nonviolent tac- 
tics never work, but that others do (which, of course, we'd then be curious 
to learn about in more detail) . But to state that a "diversity of tactics" works 
better than the dogmatic use of one particular tactic is a bit of a no-brainer 
and puts us back to square one: Which tactics - or which combinations of 
tactics - are the most effective in a specific historical situation?" 

Here, we agree on everything except the framing. Someone in an anar- 
chistnews comment already made this point, and it's worth repeating. It really 
should be a "no-brainer" that "a "diversity of tactics" works better than the dog- 
matic use of one particular tactic" (to be more precise, I would say a strict set of 
tactics, because nonviolence includes more than just one tactic) . Oh dear God how 
I wish I lived in a world where that were a no-brainer for everyone. But Gabriel 
we don't live in that world. Maybe it's an accepted fact in German- speaking coun- 
tries, in which case I salute the collective intelligence of the social movements 

admission that you are wrong on this point. 

In your final argument on terminology, Gabriel, you use a bit of mis- 
direction. I had argued that violence as a strategic criterion was introduced into 
our debates by the State and the elite media, and I give historical examples. You 
respond by saying "I don't think so. The media didn't invent our fascination with 
violence." That's a non sequitur, as I was not discussing fascination with violence, 
but strategic emphasis on it. "Violence - also in the form of "nonviolence" - excites 
everybody, and everybody will want to read about it." Really? What about invis- 
ible, structural forms of violence? Who finds that exciting? By using the term 
"violence" uncritically, you fall into exactly the sort of confusion — and ultimately 
meaninglessness — that I warn against. Another reason for not using the category 
"violence" (except to critique it). 

This is what I mean when I say that I don't want to waste time talking 
about violence, which should be contextually clear. You claim I contradict myself, 
saying "He talks about violence on every page of his book." You are wrong. There 
are very few pages of the book, after the first chapter, when I talk about violence. 
Nearly every time that I write the word, it is in reference to something the media 
or nonviolence proponents would classify as "violent." I mention the term only to 
criticize its use, which is consistent with my argument. Going back to the begin- 
ning, it seems you have misunderstood that entire argument. I do not claim that 
violence is "not a thing" to make it disappear and not talk about it, but rather so 
that I can critique it as a category, and one that is uniquely ambiguous and coun- 
terproductive. All of the confusion that you have run aground of in this section by 
trying to defend the category only reinforces my arguments, I think. 

And to close the topic of terminology, in a footnote you point out that 
I disavow the term "activists" but "despite his reservations" uses the term "fre- 
quently". Again, you have misunderstood. I disavowed the use of the term "activ- 
ists" in a very specific context: the label I was going to use to describe the opponents 
of nonviolence. I stick to that rejection. If you were to read more closely, you would 
notice that I use the term "activists" for those who describe themselves as such, 
primarily in the case of nonviolent activists. I'm not going to tell anyone not to 
label themselves that way. I also think that "nonviolence" is a nonsensical term but 
I'll still call someone a proponent of nonviolence if that is how they identify. 

I think one condition for a good debate is that one should not have to 
repeat entire arguments and I wish you had read this chapter more carefully and 
responded to what I actually wrote. 

Yes, Where Does Social Change Come From? 

In the next section of your review, you take on the admittedly ambitious 
Chapter 3, which attempts to survey all the major social rebellions since the end of 
the Cold War that I could come across. I admit in the book itself that I could not 
possibly be aware of every uprising, and that my evaluations were neither flawless 
nor objective. But they were transparent. Given that some proponents of nonvio- 
lence have made statistical surveys of the supposed effects of violence in global 

that "the greatest victory a nonviolent movement has ever achieved in the history 
of the world [was to replace] one government with another" (p. 34). But can any 
"combative" movement claim anything different? 

[9] In the context of his critique of democracy, Gelderloos also criticizes demo- 
cratic forms of decision-making: "All forms of unitary decision-making, whether 
democratic or autocratic, are designed to force people to abide by decisions they 
disagree with." (p. 250) We encounter this argument regularly in the most radical 
of our circles. One crucial thing always seems to be forgotten, however: If I agree 
that I will sometimes abide by decisions I disagree with because I deem this benefi- 
cial to a healthy and balanced community life in the long run, I do not experience 
being outvoted as a quasi-fascist attack on my precious personal freedom. It is the 
possibility to agree to the rules of the game that distinguishes democratic (and 
by this I do not mean parliamentarian) ways of decision-making from autocratic 

[10] A guideline for this approach might come from members of Denmark's 
Blekingegade Group, who, in the 1970s and 1980s, robbed cash-in-transit trucks, 
post offices, and warehouses in order to provide liberation movements in the 
Third World with material means. Reflecting on their actions in a piece pub- 
lished in 2009, three former members write: "If the motto of the end justifying the 
means implies that you can use any means you want (without any consideration 
for the consequences for others) in order to achieve any end you have decided 
to pursue, then the Blekingegade Group has never followed such a motto. At the 
same time, we have never followed the motto that the end never justifies the means 
either. After all, there is a third option - which, in fact, is much more realistic 
than the other two: not all ends justify all means, but, depending on the circum- 
stances, some ends justify some means." (Niels Jorgensen, Torkil Lauesen, and Jan 
Weimann, "Det handler om politik", Social Kritik, no. 117, March 2009, online at, translation GK) 
[11] Apparently, Gelderloos doesn't disagree. He writes at one point: "Someone 
who goes to a candlelight vigil with fireworks clearly has either misunderstood the 
historical character of this tradition, or they are intentionally trying to disrespect 
those who are organizing it." (p. 273) I'm not sure why he doesn't extend this prin- 
ciple to other events. 

[12] We encounter similar problems with sentences like the following: "People 
who make different choices do not ruin common spaces of protest. The criterion 
of importance is whether one's actions harm another participant in that space." (p. 
268) Or: " criticism and support [are] only possible if those who today 
separate themselves as pacifists decide unequivocally to stand always with those 
who struggle, and always against the powers that oppress" (p. 19). Defining "harm- 
ing someone", "those who struggle", and "the powers that oppress" is at least as 
complicated as defining violence, a task Gelderloos deems pointless. Yet, it is obvi- 
ous that these phrases need further clarification in order to really mean anything 
- such clarifications, of course, can only come from collective debate. 
[13] That I'm not the only one supporting "combative" tactics who is experiencing 
this is proven by important pieces such as "After We have Burnt Everything" - a 

text, which, unfortunately, Gelderloos only mentions in passing. 
[14] Another example is the following: "By placing more importance on some of 
them than on others, those who fetishize illegal and combative tactics miss out on 
the richness of struggle, and the ways by which struggles regenerate. They repro- 
duce the dynamic in which pacifists isolate themselves and seek some discourse to 
justify their own superiority, as opposites always recreate each other." (p. 242) This 
sounds reconciling. Yet twenty pages later, any such sense is wiped away by the fol- 
lowing comparison: "There are a number of errors that people who use combative 
or dangerous tactics can commit that damage mutual respect or solidarity. - On 
the other side of the line, there are a great many things that peaceful protesters do 
that are an absolute breach of respect and solidarity." (p. 252/261, my emphases) 
[15] Some of Gelderloos's critiques of nonviolent activists backfire. For exam- 
ple, he suggests that ngos "flock to protests where there will obviously be riots 
so they can subsequently monopolize the media attention that follows - since 
they are incapable of doing anything interesting enough to generate attention on 
their own" (p. 278-279). When did media attention become the ultimate measur- 
ing stick for doing something interesting? Is this the same media that, according 
to Gelderloos, spreads "the typical cliches of nonviolence" (p. 148) and must be 
"abolished" (p. 175)? I'm at a loss here. The relationship between anarchists and 
the media is tricky. Perhaps that's why unsettling truths sometimes fall under the 
table. With respect to the 1999 anti-wro protests in Seattle, Gelderloos, crediting 
the "combative" tactics being employed, writes that they "did more to spread an 
awareness of the antiglobalization movement than any other summit protest in 
North America or Europe" (p. 94). Yet, this is only half the truth. The other half 
is that no other summit protest - "combative" or not - has received that kind of 
media attention. 

[16] Here, I would like to return once more to having a different framework of 
experience. Gelderloos writes: "What if those who favor combative tactics started 
denouncing peaceful protesters for 'ruining our riot'? What if we tried to make 
people feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or even criminal if they showed up to 'our' 
protest and did not also pick up a rock or a can of spraypaint? The fact that this 
has never happened shows that we are not dealing with a symmetrical conflict 
between two conflicting sides. On the contrary, those who favor nonviolence have 
often based their very practice on a total lack of respect for others and an attempt 
to dominate an entire movement." (p. 267-268) Hmm. To begin with, Gelderloos's 
entire book feels like a complaint about how nonviolent protestors ruin our riots. 
More importantly, though, this passage suggests that there is no contempt for 
peaceful protestors in the "combative" protestors' ranks. Is that true? I can think 
of numerous derogatory terms used for protestors not willing to engage in "com- 
bative" demonstrations in the circles I've moved in for the past twenty-five years 
- "liberal", "coward", and "hippie" are among the most harmless. To give another 
example: Whenever I attend talks by people advocating "combative" tactics in 
front of a home audience, a simple reference to "the folks with the signs" and a 
suggestive smirk always gets the crowd roaring. My point is: Does it really add to 
the credibility of our position if we blame the "opposite side" for everything that's 

but not very. It certainly is not combative. As for "forceful", it is an action that 
uses force. Breaking open a door is forceful. Asking someone to open it for you 
is not. As you should have been able to see, Gabriel, all of these terms mean dif- 
ferent things, and all of them are more specific and more precise than "violence." 
Which is exactly why I prefer to use them. Why on earth would I challenge the use 
of the category of violence, and then just use the same category with a new label? 
Your reading simply does not make sense. The whole point is that the myriad 
things described as violent are dissimilar. Hence the words I use instead are also 

To continue, you claim that a consensus already exists around the term 
violence, but interestingly, your own arguments demonstrate how you are wrong, 
or more precisely, only half right (and it's the wrong half). 

"When we say, for example, "Be careful when arguing with John, he can 
get violent", we pretty much all know what that means: if John doesn't like what 
we say, he might smash our nose in. When we speak of a less violent society, we 
speak of an end to domestic abuse, gun killings, fist fights at the county fair, and 
so forth. I think we also have a pretty common understanding of what it means to 
have violent parents, a violent partner, to grow up in a violent neighborhood, or to 
fall victim to a violent crime." 

That's exactly the point. In all of these normalized situations, people know 
more or less what "violence" means. But readers will notice that your common 
sense examples lack the one type of situation that is most important to this debate: 
situations of struggle. If someone says, "the protest will be violent," or "we will 
not be violent in our movement," that is exactly where confusion reigns. In the 
first sentence, does it mean the police will attack the protest, or the protesters will 
attack the police, or the protesters will smash banks and avoid direct conflict with 
the police? Or does it even mean that the protesters will shout insults at the police 
but nothing else? In real life, each of these very different outcomes are described as 
"violent" by some and not by others. And in the second sentence, does that mean 
property destruction is allowed? What about self-defense? In Tahrir Square people 
described themselves as nonviolent simply because they were not carrying guns. 
But they did throw molotov cocktails and burn down police stations. 

In the middle of the passage I just quoted, you give an important example 
that is not an everyday usage: "When we speak of a less violent society". In fact, 
there is more ambiguity here than you admit. Will a less violent society mean 
primarily less interpersonal violence, like those fights at the country fair, or will 
it primarily mean less structural violence, like the starvation that kills many more 
people than fist fights? Will the State still exist in that less violent society? Are we 
talking about a peaceful society, or a pacified society? The fact that your common 
sense interpretation of the phrase focuses on interpersonal violence ("gun kill- 
ings, fist fights") and not structural violence is in itself a good indication of how 
violence, as a category, distracts attention from the bigger problems. 

Confusion around the term violence is oh-so-real. The fact that you avoid 
dealing with this confusion precisely where it matters, in our struggles, and instead 
talk about some hypothetical John who might smash our nose in, I think is a tacit 

of a cop's nose and the carpet bombing of a city in Vietnam unless they are both 
placed within the same categorical box of "violence." On an analytical level, that 
difference is extremely important. 

You then precede in a way that I find simply disingenous. I do not say that 
"violence does not exist" in order to avoid talking about it, as you suggest. In fact, 
I say that it does not exist, that it is only an arbitrary category, in order to signal a 
specific way of talking about it. I am very clear about this from the beginning of 
the chapter. "It is a category, a human construct in which we choose to place a wide 
array of actions, phenomena, situations, and so forth. "Violence" is whatever the 
person speaking at the moment decides to describe as violent. Usually, this means 
things they do not like. As a result, the use of the category "violence" tends towards 
hypocrisy" (p. 20). 

You argue that "violence" is no more ambiguous a category than any other. 
"Very few terms, especially complex ones, are clearly denned. [5] If our answer to 
this problem is that these terms can't be used in any meaningful way in discus- 
sion, we might as well stop discussing." This is a flippant misrepresentation of my 
argument. Throughout the chapter, I argue in depth about how "violence" as a 
moralistic, normative, and subjective category is uniquely prone to not just ambi- 
guity but hypocrisy and a favoring of law and order, and I cite an important social 
history of the introduction of the category of violence to the discourse on social 
control as a strategic measure by elites. I also point out that debates around differ- 
ing interpretations of "freedom," a vague term if there ever were one, are good for 
us, whereas debates about "violence" can either be a waste of time, because they do 
not tell us in the end what we actually need, or they can even reinforce dominant 
social norms. This is also my answer to your question in footnote 6: why spend 
time debating the ambiguities of revolution, and not the ambiguities of violence. 
Because one term belongs to us (at least partially), the other does not, and the 
debate of one of these ideas is necessary in order to engage in revolution, the other 
is not. 

You say that "I think Gelderloos fails in replacing the term "violence" 
with supposedly less vague and incoherent terms. He writes: "If I have to refer to 
a body of methods or tactics that are usually excluded by nonviolence, I will talk 
about 'illegal', 'combative', 'conflictive', or 'forceful' actions, as the case may be." (p. 
29) "Illegal" is certainly not incoherent, but it is a good choice? Many nonviolent 
activists I know do illegal things all the time. And can't a blockade be "conflictive"? 
The burning of a draft card "combative"? And what exactly is a "forceful" method 
or tactic?" 

Here you reveal an outright misunderstanding, "as the case may be", five 
words that you quote from my book, are not just filler, but a meaningful phrase. 
Their meaning is to suggest that I will not use "illegal", "combative," "conflictive", 
and "forceful" as synonyms. Rather, I will use one word or another, according to 
the case at hand. The burning of a draft card is not combative, which is why I never 
refer to it as such. In that case, I would say "illegal." And I would describe a block- 
ade as "conflictive" unless the participants specifically organize it in a way to mini- 
mize conflict with the police. A sit-in blockade, for example, is a little conflictive, 

gone wrong in this debate? 

[17] I'd also encourage Gelderloos, or anybody for that matter, to elaborate on the 
following: "I'll just . . . reiterate the point that those who support a diversity of tac- 
tics are not generally satisfied with our struggle, many are self-critical, and many 
want to be more inclusive." (p. 30) Now, that, I'd find really exciting. 

Misrepresentations, but Substantial Differences as Well 

A Response to Gabriel Kuhn's "Violence Sells... But Who is Buying?" (a review of The 
Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy) 

Gabriel: on consideration I decided to write this response to you directly, and 
avoid the formalism and stiffness that only exacerbates disagreements exchanged 
on paper. Through your review, I think you've opened what might be a useful 
debate about the imposition of nonviolence in social movements, and methods for 
struggle that rely on a diversity of tactics. I especially welcome the importance you 
put in your opening paragraphs on collective self-criticism rather than the draw- 
ing of battle lines and the covering up of the weaknesses of one's own team. 

I Agree that Nonviolence is not Monolithic 

You start your criticisms by indicating the heterogeneity of nonviolence. 
This is a heterogeneity I also acknowledge, although in your mind I do so 
in a way that is "not entirely clear", "suggesting" the possibility of a better 
kind of pacifist (in fact, I directly mention such pacifists, rather than just suggest- 
ing their existence), yet it is "nonviolence as an exclusive, dogmatic, and absolute 
position that dominates Gelderloos's account". 

Perhaps my difference with you is that I do not take a "live and let live" 
approach towards advocates of nonviolence. I believe that solidarity must be criti- 
cal. If it turns out that nonviolence is a nonsensical or treacherous concept, I think 
it is necessary to say so out loud, rather than accept all differences as legitimate 
within a democratic framework of diversity. But unlike authoritarian participants 
in a social movement (including many proponents of nonviolence), I express my 
rejection of nonviolence with critique, debate, and working with others to create 
a different kind of struggle. I don't try to exclude, silence, malign, or criminalize 
those I disagree with. After all, sometimes we are wrong in the things we are sure 
about. Nonetheless, such a possibility is no reason to not act on one's convictions, 
especially when doing so, and engaging with critics, is such a great way to learn. 

I think that some supporters of nonviolence are motivated by a desire to 
carry out peaceful activities as part of an effort to change the world. They probably 
turn to nonviolence because the concept expresses a vision of social change in a 
language that appeals to them. I think there is a good possibility to work with such 

people, as I point out in the Introduction (p. 19). All the same, the philosophy of 
nonviolence will tend to corrupt their actions, or at the least to unify them with 
people who are directly working to maintain State power. As I stated in the earlier 
book (How Nonviolence Protects the State) and in the Appendix of the new book 
(p. 292), nonviolence is a broad category that brings together people fighting for 
very different things. The category is self-selecting. 

I criticize nonviolence because of its intrinsic authoritarian tendencies. 
Individuals who adhere to nonviolence may successfully resist those tendencies, 
but their example is no reason to forgive the banner they rally around. Similarly, 
one might say that Marxism is an intrinsically authoritarian ideology. Are anti- 
state communists the exception that disproves the rule, or are they a minority 
current that specifically resists the authoritarian tendency at the heart of their 
ideology? Someone who believes the latter would continue to criticize Marxism, 
while also debating and working together with anti-state communists. 

To reitirate my argument, "Nonviolence requires a strategic usage of 
the concept of "violence," which is moralistic, imprecise, incoherent, and tends 
towards hypocrisy. We reject nonviolence because it is pacifying, and because it is 
incoherent. The category of violence is a tool of the State. In using it uncritically, 
nonviolent activists also become tools" (p. 29). "In countries across the world, non- 
violence has constituted a slippery slope towards increasingly pacified tactics. As 
explained in Chapter 1, placing strategic importance on the category of violence 
surrenders power to the media to tell us which tactics are acceptable and which 
are not. Nonviolence, by being anti-conflictual in a society predicated on an irrec- 
oncilable conflict, seeks reconciliation with the same authorities who dominate us, 
and this means a tendency to avoid that which is most controversial in the eyes of 
power. It was only a matter of time until pacifists define "violence" as "a violation 
of the law" " (p. 124). 

I think it would be interesting, Gabriel, if you were to write a detailed 
account about what a diversity of tactics looks like among those who grew up in 
the German autonomous movement, or even to publish a dialogue with a non- 
violent anarchist there. I am curious as to what role history plays. Was the State 
unable to fracture struggles there, as it did in the US? Is the lack of acrimony the 
reason for a successful diversity of tactics "on the ground"? And what do German 
supporters of nonviolence have to say about this diversity of tactics, as the exis- 
tence of a successful diversity of tactics tends to undermine nonviolence, since the 
latter defines itself as a rejection of violence, in other words a rejection of every- 
thing beyond itself that makes up the diversity of tactics? Are they more accurately 
pacifists who see theirs as an exclusively personal practice they do not expect of 
others? Or do they still try to discourage others from taking actions they would 
view as violent? 

All the same, the difference in our approaches cannot be chalked entirely 
up to the differences in the places where we live. For one thing, many of the topics 
dealt with in the book transcend their immediate context, such as the Color 
Revolutions or the Arab Spring. Another substantial part of the book deals with 
the sort of default, societal nonviolence that appears when large numbers of people 

start taking to the streets for the first time. If a spontaneous popular movement 
were to appear in Austria or Germany, on the scale of Occupy or the plaza occupa- 
tions, I would bet that you would suddenly come face to face with the same kind of 
authoritarian, unsolidaristic, reformist, and incoherent kind of pacifist that domi- 
nated the streets for a brief while in North America, the UK, and southern Europe. 
In my book I also address the kind of hidden nonviolence that does not challenge 
the idea of combative struggles openly, having already lost that debate, but resorts 
to other methods to preserve the social peace by delegitimizing any non-peaceful 
attempts to struggle. Such nonviolence, which holds a majority across Europe and 
North America nowadays, does not arise out of historical struggles but out of a 
fear of violence, especially the violence of the Other. I know that in Sweden, which 
is certainly not out of your ken, Gabriel, such crypto-pacifist responses to the vari- 
ous immigrant riots in the last four years have been sadly common. 

Therefore, even though you and I came of age in vastly different situa- 
tions, and your situation does provide a vibrant example of a successful diversity 
of tactics in which nonviolent radicals play an important role, it is simply not true 
that we have not come in contact with the same kinds of nonviolence. 

Confusion about Terminology 

Gabriel, I am afraid I found your section on terminology to be flawed to the 
point of confused. I'll try to say how while upholding the friendly, respectful tone 
that you used. In this case, I think the confusion could have been averted by simply 
rereading what I had written. Given the quantity of misinterpretations, especially 
in the section on terminology, I think it deserves to be mentioned — delicately — 
that your astoundingly lengthy review came out in a surprisingly short time after 
the book was released. While I am glad you have gone into such detail, opening the 
door for a rich and substantial debate rather than one based on the usual cliches, 
such hastiness is not always a good thing. 

Let's see. You start off taking me to task for saying that violence is not a 
"thing", pointing out that "neither is the state, capitalism, racism, sexism, or anar- 
chy. Does this mean that none of these phenomena exist?" 

I know that you are a capable thinker who understands the difference 
between an object, a social structure, and a category. Unfortunately, when we talk 
about nonviolence today we cannot assume that everyone else is on the same page. 
Many people see violence as some sort of essence. This is abundantly reflected 
in nonviolent reasoning, e.g. the obnoxiously common argument that "violence 
begets more violence". This ignorance is one that many proponents of nonviolence 
unfortunately exploit. To make any progress, it is necessary to explain that vio- 
lence is a category. Hence, it is not a "thing" but a sort of basket that we put things 

I would disagree with you about your understanding of "things" (as com- 
ical as that might sound). I would say that the State is indeed a thing, although 
not a concrete thing. It is a system of institutions, structures, infrastructure, and 
culture that function as a unified whole. There is no unity between the breaking